How is THAT a Poem? Winning Over Skeptical Students with E. E. Cummings

by Laura Wheatman Hill

“This assignment challenges students to broaden their understanding of what a poem can be. It opens them up to the concept of “form and content,” and the way the subject matter of a poem often informs its form or structure on the page.”

My favorite poem to teach in the classroom is “l(a…(a leaf falls on loneliness)” by E.E. Cummings. I like to teach it as one of, if not the first, poems in a poetry writing unit. Before I pass out any rubrics or assignments, I write this poem on the board:

l(a

le
af
fa

ll

s)
one
l

iness

And then I wait. Inevitably, a student asks something to the extent of, “What is that?” which gives me the opportunity to say, “a poem.”

Then I wait.

Someone inevitably says, “HOW is THAT a poem?”

“It’s weird, huh?” I say. “It’s not what you thought a poem would be, is it?”

“It doesn’t rhyme!” someone always says.

I’ve taught this poem with elementary ages in a “Classics for Kids” class and I’ve taught it to high school seniors. Almost always the conversation is the same.

“You’re right!” I say. “It doesn’t rhyme. Some poems don’t rhyme. Let’s back up, though. What does this poem even say?”

I wait.

People start to make guesses. Some point out the snippets of words. Some put the whole puzzle together pretty quickly and then we explain it to the others. Some get stuck and shut down and get mad that a poem like this even exists and want to know how much money this E. E. Cummings guy made on this piece of garbage. I take all comments with equal weight, allowing their various reactions, heated or resistant, to pass without debating them or allowing them to divert the aim of the lesson.

Then, once we’ve figured out the riddle of the poem, I ask, “Why might this poem be shaped like this? He could have written it like this” and I write it out horizontally. I say, “He could have spaced it out differently. Why did he do it like this?”

I take any opinions they have. They sometimes stare at me blankly. No one, yet, has come up with the reason before I pick up a piece of paper.

“Watch.” I hold up the piece of paper, high above my head, and let it fall to the ground. Everyone stares at me like I’ve lost my mind.

I pick up the paper and say, “This is how a leaf looks when it falls, right?” I drop the paper again and, hopefully, some kids start to nod.

I point to the poem on the board. If I wait long enough, a student says, “The poem falls down the page like a falling leaf.” Another asks, “ Why did he write about a leaf? Why not a cloud or an acorn?”

We discuss how a leaf falling is dying, how dying is lonely, how we all die alone. It gets a bit dark, but they like it. We point out how the lower case “l” looks like a typed 1 when you look at it in Times New Roman.  I tell them E. E. Cummings used a typewriter and we look at a few fonts, noticing Courier, the font of typewriters, also makes “l” look like “1.” We notice how he repeats the “l” and then the word, “one” later and even how “i ness” seems like “I” and then “ness” like loneliness is the state of being an individual, alone.

Now the assignment. “You will write a visual poem. Your shape has to inform the meaning. For example…” I draw a lightning bolt and ask what it is. They guess immediately. “The poem will be about a storm, right? So my first line will be something like, ‘The air is heavy as the storm begins.’” I write it down. “Then, you write the whole poem, which I won’t do now, but you have to end it with the shape of the lightning bolt, so maybe my last word is ‘BAM!’” I write “bam” in the point of the lightning bolt. “You will be graded on making sure your shape matches your meaning and on depth. What is depth?”

We discuss what makes E. E. Cummings’ poem “deep” and how my lightning poem could be surface level, only about a storm, or it could have additional layers of meaning, such as being excited or scared for something.

I have received beautiful hand-drawn work from students with this assignment. My favorite was an above and beyond poem about the cycles of the moon and how it relates to life and death. The lesson introduces the concept of “anything is a poem if you say it is,” as well as formal concepts such as symbolism, poetic license, and metaphor. This assignment challenges students to broaden their understanding of what a poem can be. It opens them up to the concept of “form and content,” and the way the subject matter of a poem often informs its form or structure on the page.

Even the kid grumbling about this weird E. E. Cummings guy with the strange name and bad grammar usually plays along.

Laura Wheatman Hill lives in Portland, Oregon with her two children. She blogs about parenting, writes about everything, and teaches English and drama when not living in an apocalyptic dystopia. Her work has appeared on Observer, the Submittable Blog, She Knows, and others.You can find her at https://www.laurawheatmanhill.com/ and on Twitter and Instagram @lwheatma 

 


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'How is THAT a Poem? Winning Over Skeptical Students with E. E. Cummings' have 1 comment

  1. September 30, 2020 @ 10:23 pm Sheryl Noethe

    This is a surprising and delightful lesson and requires such concentration on meaning and movement! Thank you for your clear simple discussion. I had never truly and correctly read the poem until you brought it. I was thinking in some writerly idea of onliness as a concept and then you explained his typeface blurring I and L . Thanks again. You are doing excellent teaching!

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